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Biomimicry: Design by Analogy to Biology.

The best ideas are often borrowed. For example, the Dyson vacuum was inspired by cyclone separators used in sawmills to remove sawdust from air, the STRiDA folding bike repurposes the mechanics of the collapsible Maclaren umbrella stroller, and a guitar pickup winder took inspiration from the Dazey Stripper, an electric fruit and vegetable peeler with a rotating spindle. The practice of borrowing ideas from other domains to solve technical challenges is called design by analogy. It is a technique widely applied by innovators. Traditionally, analogous solutions are sourced from other industries, but a recent trend has practitioners of design by analogy looking to a more distant domain for solutions--biology.

Design by analogy to biology, often called biomimicry, (1) is innovation through the emulation of biological forms, processes, patterns, and systems. Biomimicry is motivated by an understanding of natural selection, a process through which advantageous traits are perpetuated as the best-adapted organisms tend to survive and reproduce in greater numbers than those with less effective adaptations. Over time, natural selection, responding to diverse and dynamic environments, has culled high-performing survival strategies, which are embodied in the 10 to 50 million enduring species with whom we share this planet. These time-tested strategies can be copied to address technical challenges. A best practice in design by analogy to industry is to consult industries that have higher stakes and more advanced technology than one's own. In biology, the stakes are life or death and the R&D laboratory has been operating for 3.8 billion years--there are no higher stakes or more advanced research programs.

Biomimicry has a deep history. Italian Renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) created elaborate sketches of bird- and bat-inspired flying machines. French engineer Sir Marc Brunei (1769-1849) invented the caisson, a structure that enables underwater construction, after observing the naval shipworm, a saltwater clam whose valves allow it to bore through wooden ships without being crushed when newly exposed layers of wood absorb ambient water and swell. While on a walk in the woods, Swiss engineer George de Mestral (1907-1990) noticed burrs sticking to his jacket. He looked at one of the burrs under a microscope and saw that the seed vessel had hook-like extremities that gripped the looped fibers of his outerwear. His discovery led to patenting of a novel hook-and-loop fastening system, the now ubiquitous VELCRO.

Despite its deep history, biomimicry only recently gained popularity. The 1997 publication of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, by naturalist Janine Benyus, propelled biomimicry into the mainstream. Since then, opportunities to pursue higher education in the emerging field have proliferated. The University of Akron (Biomimicry Research and Innovation Center), Arizona State University (Biomimicry Center), Georgia Institute of Technology (Center for Biologically Inspired Design), Harvard University (Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering), and the University of California, Berkeley (Center for Interdisciplinary Biological Inspiration in Education and Research) are all pioneering biomimicry research. The University of Akron program is standout for its high-level industry engagement. Companies sponsor fellowships for PhD students who receive interdisciplinary training in biology, design, engineering, and business while advancing biomimicry research initiatives aligned with corporate R&D goals. Professional training in biomimicry has also become more accessible, through organizations like Biomimicry 3.8, Great Lakes Biomimicry, and PatternFox Consulting.

In a 2013 Bioinspiration & Biomimetics article, "The State of the Art in Biomimetics," Nathan Lepora, Paul Verschure, and Tony Prescott report a 14-fold increase between 2000 and 2010 in the number of patents containing variations of the word biomimicry; many of these patents have been commercialized. NBD Nano sells custom surface wettability solutions inspired by desert beetles, Interface sells non-directional carpet tiles inspired by forest floors, and Encyle delivers energy management solutions modeled after social insect communities. Books like The Shark's Paintbrush, Bulletproof Feathers, and The Gecko's Foot provide many more examples.

Case studies help elucidate the process of biomimicry. Consider the story behind ORNILUX bird protection glass, a product of German glass manufacturer Arnold Glas. At least 100 million birds die in window collisions annually; migratory songbirds, already threated by overhunting and shrinking habitat, are disproportionately affected. In addition to posing a conservation problem, bird strikes also disrupt building occupants. To solve this problem, Arnold Glas borrowed an idea from orb-weaving spiders. These spiders spin their webs with UV-reflective silks. Birds can see UV, so they avoid colliding with orb webs--preserving the spider's handiwork. Arnold Glas translated this strategy, innovating a UV-reflective, patterned glass coating that balances visibility to birds and transparency to people. The global uniqueness of the resulting product, ORNILUX, allowed the company to enter the North American market. Since launching in North America in 2010, ORNILUX has experienced consistent, year-over-year sales growth.

The circumstances surrounding development of PureBond Hardwood Plywood provide another insightful case study. Most manmade glues perform poorly on wet surfaces, but blue mussels effectively cling to wet rocks even while being pummeled by waves. They accomplish this with small adhesive byssal threads that contain DOPA--a modified amino acid that includes an organic compound that preferentially bonds with metal atoms present on the surface of most rocks. Inspired by this biological strategy, a team of researchers chemically modified soy protein, decorating it with DOPA-like compounds. The result was an adhesive comparable in terms of water resistance, shear strength, and durability to the best-known alternative, formaldehyde-based resins. Formaldehyde, though an effective adhesive, is a known carcinogen. Columbia Forest Products, North America's largest manufacturer of quality hardwood plywood, invested funds to scale this nontoxic solution, which has the added benefits of creating less visible glue lines and requiring shorter cure times, for implementation in its layered wood composites. The PureBond Hardwood Plywood product line is now available at Home Depot locations nationwide.

An article in the July-August 2016 issue of RTM offers a particularly detailed biomimicry case study. The article, authored by myself and Thomas Marting, documents the innovation of energy-efficient soap and sanitizer dispensers at GOJO Industries and compares the results of two approaches to front-end innovation (biomimicry and the more familiar intellectual property landscaping). In this case, biomimicry produced double the intellectual property and double the energy savings for just one-sixth the resource commitment as the more traditional approach. The fact that biomimicry produced more energy-efficient solution concepts is particularly noteworthy, given the growing importance of environmental sustainability among business managers and consumers alike. It makes sense that biological models would inspire more sustainable solutions; after all, life has sustained on this earth for over 3.8 billion years. Two primary design lessons from nature identified in Biomimicry 3.8's Life's Principles, a diagrammatic representation of overarching strategies utilized by most species on this planet, are to "Be Resource Efficient (Material and Energy)" and "Use Life-Friendly Chemistry." When used as ideation stimulus, biological models can inspire solutions aligned with these principles.

Other studies have also attempted to characterize the benefits of biomimicry. A 2010 Design Studies article by Jamal Wilson, David Rosen, Brent Nelson, and Jeanette Yen found exposure to biological examples during idea generation increased the novelty of design ideas without inhibiting variety, compared to engineered examples, which decreased variety. A forthcoming Creativity Research Journal article I coauthored with Derek Miller and Peter Niewiarowski corroborates this finding. The forthcoming study also finds that biological analogies tend to increase the elegance of concepts generated.

Potential long-term impacts of biomimicry are quantified in a 2013 Fermanian Business & Economic Institute Report commissioned by the San Diego Zoo. Drawing on estimates of biomimicry's penetration in various industries, the report predicts that by 2030, biomimicry could account for $425 billion in US GDP and $1.6 trillion in global GDP, and it could generate $50 billion savings associated with reduced resource depletion and lower C02 pollution. A 2015 report prepared by Terrapin Bright Green, while performing work contracted for and sponsored by NYSERDA, is another great resource for those seeking a big picture view of biomimicry's potential. The report showcases the versatility of biomimicry, describing the radical solutions it has yielded in nine cross-sector areas: carbon, water, materials, energy storage and conversion, optics and photonics, thermoregulation, fluid dynamics, data and computing, and systems.

Most recently, a Fortune blog entry named biomimicry among the top trends to ride in 2017. The author of the March 2017 post, Verne Harnish, argues, "If you're not incorporating the most brilliant ideas from the natural world into what you sell, you're leaving money on the table." R&D managers: the biomimicry wave is cresting. Have you mounted your surfboard or are you still lounging on the beach?

Emily Barbara Kennedy is director of external relations for the University of Akron's Biomimicry Research and Innovation Center, innovation services project manager and professional education workshop instructor with Great Lakes Biomimicry, and CEO/co-founder of tech startup Hedgemon.

In this space, we offer a series of summaries on key topics, with pointers to important resources, to keep you informed of new developments and help you expand your repertoire of tools and ideas. We welcome your contributions, in the form of suggestions for topics and of column submissions.

DOI: 10.1080/08956308.2017.1373052



Robert Allen, ed. 2010. Bulletproof Feathers: How Science Uses Nature's Secrets to Design Cutting-Edge Technology. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Janine M. Benyus. 1997. Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. New York: Morrow.

Peter Forbes. 2006. The Gecko's Foot: How Scientists Are Taking a Leaf from Nature's Book. London: Harper Perennial.

Jay Harman. 2014. The Shark's Paintbrush: Biomimicry and How Nature Is Inspiring Innovation. Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press.

Emily B. Kennedy, Derek J. Miller, and Peter H. Niewiarowski. (in press). Effect of industrial vs. biological analogies on creativity of business professionals. Creativity Research Journal.

Emily B. Kennedy and Thomas A. Marting. 2016. Biomimicry: Streamlining the front end of innovation for environmentally sustainable products. Research-Technology Management 59(4): 40-48.

Nathan F. Lepora, Paul Verschure, and Tony J. Prescott. 2013. The state of the art in biomimetics. Bioinspiration & Biomimetics 8(1): 013001.

Jamal O. Wilson, David Rosen, Brent A. Nelson, and Jeanette Yen. 2010. The effects of biological examples in idea generation. Design Studies 31(2): 169-186.


Fermanian Business & Economic Institute. 2013. Bioinspiration: An Economic Progress Report. Point Loma Nazarene University. November. https://drive.

Verne Harnish. 2017. 5 Trends to Ride in 2017. Fortune, March 17. http://fortune. com/2017/03/17/trends-business-career-benefits/

Biomimicry 3.8. 2013. Biomimicry DesignLens--Life's Principles,

Cas Smith, Allison Bernett, Eleanor Sadik-Khan, Erika Hanson, and Chris Garvin. 2015. Tapping into Nature: The Future of Energy, Innovation, and Business. Terrapin Bright Green, March,

(1) Also, biomimetics, biomimetic design, bio-inspiration, bio-inspired design, bionics, and bionik (in parts of Europe).
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Title Annotation:RESOURCES
Author:Kennedy, Emily Barbara
Publication:Research-Technology Management
Date:Nov 1, 2017
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